It has been suggested that a route map of my trip might help with following the journey so I have quickly rustled up this one. Having made it I am now aware that the sub-heading of my trip should be ‘Planes, trains, and automobiles’…
It has been suggested that a route map of my trip might help with following the journey so I have quickly rustled up this one. Having made it I am now aware that the sub-heading of my trip should be ‘Planes, trains, and automobiles’…
I wake early, grab my camera and head out before breakfast to explore Khiva before we set out for our drive to Bukhara. The vivid blue sky of yesterday has been replaced by a dreary grey blanket of cloud and everything looks flat through my lens. There are no interesting shadows, there are no bright greens and blues of the tiles and the brickwork looks dull; a photographers nightmare. But I take solace that my early rise was not in vain as it is lovely to see the streets that were filled with stalls and peppered with people yesterday, now empty.
I wander around alone and it’s a relief not to be hounded by scarf and furry hat sellers telling me their wares are “cheap and almost free” which is a cry that has whistled across the streets in many of the tourist areas. The only people in the the streets seem to be the people who work at the sites laden with bunches of keys preparing to open the buildings for the tourists. A camel looks at me haughtily as I pass and even as a camelophile I’m disappointed, being so close to Bactria, that he is a dromedary.
The first of the stalls begin to appear and each owner is armed with large plastic sheets in the event the skies do open.
Drops of rain start to fall and the stone paving turns a dark metallic grey. I head back to the hotel by way of some back streets outside the city walls and the pristine finish to the UNESCO city fade and it gives way to the rugged and real world of the inhabited town. A woman comes to her door with a child in her arms and we exchange hellos while the kid waves at me and I wave back. A simple exchange but everyone is left smiling.
I gulp down a coffee and join the others. Our driver, Azim, is extraordinarily proud of his minibus and without fail every time we return to the vehicle, even after a short stop, he has cleaned our dusty footprints away, cleaned the dust from above the wheel arch and laid a little damp towel down in the footwell of the sliding door for us to step on and remove the excess dirt from our shoes. His attentive care for his vehicle, which is after all is his livelihood, extends to his driving. He slowly picks his way around the potholes with precision and although we appreciate the smooth ride the queue of cars behind him do not and speed past us leaving in their wake a plume of dust that inevitably settles on the gleaming white bodywork of his van. Azim’s only option is to flip the windscreen wipers on, send a jet of water onto the glass and try wash away the worst of the damage. We continue our journey in this manner and I can tell he is itching to reach the newly laid tarmac of the main road.
We stop for lunch at a roadside cafe and the smell of barbecued lamb welcomes us as the van door slides open. We find a long table with a brightly coloured striped table cloth and tea and bread are brought immediately. The barbecue itself is very long but only about 15ms wide: the exact length of the pieces of meat on each skewer. Genius.
Our journey continues and the new tarmac road looms into view and we speed along. The landscape turns to scrub desert and looks like it has been ironed flat.
After a few hours the road comes to an abrupt end and with a bump we return to the old potholed tarmac road and once again Azim picks out the route to avoid the potholes and once again the windscreen wipers are deployed.
We reach Bukhara and once the rooms are allocated we order a bottle of chilled white wine and toast our arrival.
We set off on our first big drive of the trip. The Soviet buildings and sparse greenery of Nukus die away giving way to scrub desert and the driver carefully picks his way between the potholes in the tarmac. After some time the horizon becomes dotted with low mounds and we pull off the main road and head along a dust track towards one of them. As it gets closer I spot the unmistakable shape of a round tower crowning the top of the hill. It is a familiar shape to me as we had seen some Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Iran and indeed the pleasing shape, the sense of tranquility and the ethical practise of disposing the dead away from the land you use to live on and feed from had me seriously considering converting to Zoroastrianism.
We clamber up the slope and follow the rather precarious path that circumnavigates the walls around to the stepped entrance. It requires a bit of a scrabble up through the break in the wall but we manage to reach the platform inside. Chilpak was a royal cemetery of the 4th century and unlike the ones I saw in Iran where the bodies were left out in the open to be picked clean by birds and then the bones swept into a communal central pit, this one had internal divisions creating familial spaces called ‘naoi’. When the bones were clean, each individual was placed in a substantial ceramic ossuary that in many cases looked like little houses that we had likened to the Villanovan burial vessels in the museum. The camel-shaped ossuary must have belonged to this group and together with the fact that griffins were assumed to be the birds that pecked the bones clean I became convinced that this was the way I wanted to be buried.
Inside the tower was a curious metal frame to which were tied hundreds of pieces of coloured textiles. We all presumed this marked the most sacred of spots in the tower but were amused to learn that is was a landscape surveyors’ trig point and that the locals had adopted it as a place to leave offerings to bring good luck.
We drive to the next mound on the horizon. The area we are entering is known as Elliq Qala, in the province of Khorezm, and in every guide book it tells you it means ‘Fifty Forts’. Oktyabr explains that this is in fact a misnomer and the name comes from the local pronunciation for the word ‘wind’ which was misheard as ‘fifty’, presumably because it was so windy. These are the Windy Forts. Easy to see why: they sit perched on hilltops overlooking the flattest of dusty plains and there is no obstacle to break of hinder the passage of any wind.
We arrive at the impressive walls of Qizil Qala fortress which dates to the 1st to the 4th century AD with later additions in the 12th century. The base of the fortification wall is very much reconstructed but has a really pleasing sturdy shape with sharp corner angles and an impressive slope reminiscent of the travertine walls of the Vatican. Protruding out of the smooth surface of the wall are the ends of horizontal wooden beams that cast long shadows like a collection of sundials.
At the entrance we see that there are decorative pilasters where a constrasting mudbrick design was used to break up the facade. Rather chichi for an imposing fortress.
We scramble up through the doglegged entrance which was intended to throw off anyone trying to breach the walls in antiquity. The inside of the fort looks like the gently undulating surface of the moon littered with dust-covered shrubs. There are deep holes in the odd place where the archaeologists have investigated the internal layout of the fort. The walls, though seemingly solid in construction, were once punctured by arrow slit windows. I loved hearing that through time the standard brick size changed – between a dumpy brick and a slender one it is hard to know what the difference is when it comes to building threes massive structures but there was a human decision to change the shape and it is that that I love.
Our next stop is the neighbouring mound of Torpak Qala another fortress founded in the 1st century AD. On first glimpse it looks unimpressive, a large crater has been dug through the build up of mud layers in the entrance and nothing is visible within it. A sloped track borders the crater and looks like the access road to a quarry site. We follow Oktyabr up the slope and as we reach the crest we see why he has led us here. A ridge extends out from the hillock we are standing on and stretches out to form a huge rectangular enclosure. Along the spine of the ridge sits a ruined mudbrick wall and it suddenly apparent that we are very much in one corner of a huge complex that lies below us – a walled and protected city. It is a little bit of a pull focus moment.
We continue to clamber over the citadel and are told of a king’s throne room, a room of victories and a Zoroastrian temple with a cleansing room with adjacent prayer room. It appears that this corner of the complex served as the royal and religious centres of the settlement. Sadly not visible now as they are housed in St Petersburg, but we learn of frescoes that would have once adorned each of the rooms: sun gods, large scary faces, dancers… it is world away from the bleached mudbrick before us.
Lunch is taken in a local restaurant and we are served little pasta ravioli filled with meat or egg. More like mini dumplings we gobble them up to replenish the calories we’ve burnt off during our morning of mudbrick and hilltops. We drop Oktyabr off in a town where he can catch a taxi back to Nukus while we continue onto Khiva. We bid our farewell and in the midst of this we are trying to organise a tip of a certain amount as he has been a wonderful host. Apparently between he front and back row of a small nine-seater minibus there is some misunderstanding and a hug wad of notes is passed to me. One thing to understand about Uzbekistan is that the current black market exchange rate is 7000 Sum to the dollar and the biggest note they have is 5000 sum. Paying for anything is a laborious process of counting out notes – it’s the same as if we only had 50p notes in Britain. Wads of notes have already become a familiar sight and paying for lunch leaves the little case heaving and with money spewing out.
So when I hand him a large wad I presume it has been counted out and that this is the tip we are leaving. Oktyabr gratefully accepts it and pops it in his pocket. We wave goodbye and as he crosses the road to get his taxi someone asks me for the left over money so that it can be returned to our kitty.
I am hit by the sudden realisation that I have handed him goodness knows how much of our money. The rest of the group register what has just happened and we decide that the best thing to do is confess to him our mistake and rectify it. I hop out the van and chase him along the road and I’m followed by one of my fellow travellers. Oktyabr spots me, and comes over. I explain the mix up that has happened in the most apologetic way I can muster and he digs into his pocket and retrieves the wad of notes. The pile suddenly looks enormous and I feel awful for having gotten his hopes up. As my companion distract him by talking to him about the weather, I count out the right tip and then deliver a distinctly slimmer wad of notes into his hand. It is monstrously awkward but it had to be done as we are on a budget and to judge by the size of the remaining wad I am now in possession of I had probably given him a good few days worth of our budget. Poor man
The landscape we are driving through is not particularly notable but it is quite something to cross the famous Oxus River…
I’m keen to arrive in Khiva in daylight as we are straight off the next morning to Bukhara. We pull into town in the warm evening light and it is perhaps perfect. The wonderfully bulbous mudbrick city walls of Khiva greet us and we get taken to our hotel. Only that it is not the hotel we thought we were staying in. We are without a translator but our driver, Azim, seems utterly convinced that he has brought us to the right place. He enters the hotel and returns with a lady dressed in purple with hair to match. She grins at us and we get a flash of her row of gold teeth. She welcomes us to the hotel but our group is still confused and try phoning the agent to confirm which hotel we are booked into. Usually it wouldn’t matter but in this case a special and more expensive hotel had been chosen for the one night because it was the only one in a traditional building. Meanwhile the purple lady is quite insistent that we enter the hotel and we apologise that although we are sure her hotel is lovely we would like to check there has been no mix up. She retains a fixed grin but is looking a little dismayed and keeps gesturing towards the hotel doors and tries to move us from our perches in the bus but to no avail. Finally it is confirmed that the original hotel cancelled our booking and we are indeed in the purple lady’s hotel. Her face lights up when we all follow her into the hotel and she keeps enthusiastically welcoming us. We are handed keys to our rooms and she offers us tea. I am now very conscious that we are losing precious daylight but she suggests we should take tea so we all sit and wait for the brew to be poured. We paw over our maps and guide books and discuss a few of the sites we want to see in Khiva. The purple lady just sits with us and smiles her gold smile. I am entrusted with map reading and given the task of navigating our group through the old town in the absence of a guide. I stare at the map of little wiggly streets of Khiva and get my bearings while we gulp down our tea. The purple lady continues to smile and in so doing wrinkles up her piercing blue eyes. As we finish our tea the purple lady announces she will show us Khiva…. our group falls silent as the penny drops that she is our guide and not the owner of the hotel as we had all imagined. To say this was an awkward moment is an understatement. Our second for the day. She sees our faces and the penny drops for her too. She bursts out laughing and says she should have probably introduced herself.
We set out on a lovely evening stroll through the town and every building looks magical in the warm glow of the sun. I instantly fall in love with the relatively recent build of the Islam Khodja Minaret (1910). It has a very pleasing dumpy but perfectly rounded shape and it sits looking very much rooted to the ground. The tapering coloured bands of glazed tiles seem to squeeze it upwards and it’s evidently Khiva’s lookout point.
Along the road and past the stalls selling embroidered silk, silk scarves and carved pieces of wood we wend our way towards the mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud. He is the adopted patron saint of Khiva and rather wonderfully, I discover he was a furrier in his day but also renown for his wrestling talents. Not many patron saints can claim that combination. The mausoleum was set up over his furrier workshop and boasts a gorgeous green dome visible in glimpses from around the city. Though he died in the 13th century, the tomb was only inaugurated in 1810. I’ll admit that a part of me wanted it to be fur-lined but the cooling blue and white tile decoration is lovely.
Our guide, Matsuma herds us along the streets and brings us to a crossroads. Part of the group are distracted by the very distracting enormous shaggy wool and fur hat stalls and the array of strange mannequins with no noses. Our poor guide is keen to continue the tour and eventually gathers us in one spot to adore the second mina of Khiva, the Kalta Minor minaret. It’s a stunted minaret as it is incomplete but was supposed to be the highest one in all Asia until its benefactor was beheaded and its architect fled. So it sits rather heavily at one side of the town but the turquoise tiles are a teaser as to how it may have looked had a head not rolled.
We move on to the Juma Mosque. As we enter in between the huge carved wooden doors we are met with a forest of carved columns. There are 213 columns of which only a handful date to the original 10th century, the rest mainly from the 18th century, but the atmosphere in this building is wonderful. Patches of light seep through the small open courtyards but for the most part the room is dimly lit. We weave in and out amongst the rows of columns and I really do feel a sense of peace in this space.
Our final stop, just as the sun is getting low in the sky, is the impressive facade of the 19th century Allah Kali Khan Madrassah at the eastern edge of the town. Its bricks are a warm colour in this light and the delicate and sparing use of blue tile decoration is used just to highlight the grand entrance and the arches over the window.
The group by now are weary and the sun has all but set. The lure of a drink before we eat is growing strong and my companions saunter back to the hotel. I lag behind with one other person to catch the last glimmers of light on the city walls but soon dusk settles and the camera is switched off.
Tomorrow we head to Bukhara.
We rise early to get to the airport for our internal flight to Nukus, capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan in the north west of Uzbekistan. The queuing system at the airport for the various security checks seem to work on the basis that you just push and barge to the front as soon as you are bored of standing in line. It works brilliantly as you can imagine. We eventually find ourselves on the airside and discover an Uzbek barista who makes the most wonderful cappucino. Feeling a little more fortified we board our flight. I wish I could regale you with what the landscape looks like between Tashkent and Nukus but I had a centre seat and there was a layer of cloud shutting off any chance of a glimpse of the Kyzylkum Desert.
We meet our new guide on our arrival; a friendly-faced man called Oktyabr (October). His name comes from the period of Soviet rule when the month of October had particular relevance. He is an archaeologist and proudly tells us of his work and publications. We drop our bags off at the hotel and head out to see a cemetery site called Mizdakhan. On the way we hear some of the horrors of the consequences of the Soviet draining of the Aral Sea. Where there once were forests there are now barren scrublands. Where once there was a thriving fishing industry there is now none. It’s a human caused disaster and the effects on these people and the landscape is devastating. There are efforts to replant the trees in Nukus and hope that they will survive.
We reach the cemetery and enter through the gate. The tombs spread like a sea around us and litter the slopes and crest of the hill before us. The adjacent town was founded in the 4th century BC and was inhabited until it was destroyed by Timur (14th century). The cemetery was still considered sacred so burials continued here. The grave markers are a mix of brick enclosures and metal frames that look like bedsteads. In many of the grave plots there is a ladder with seven rungs used to carry the body to the cemetery and then left to assist with the dead’s ascent to the afterlife.
We pick our way between the tombs and climb the hill. At the top there is a particularly impressive brick tomb structure and we pass through its doors and down a staircase. It’s the 12th century tomb ofMazlam Khan Slu. The terracotta brick construction is punctuated in a regimental pattern by inserts of small turqoise blue-glazed tiles with decorative reliefs on them. The colour is cooling as is the temperature as we descend further. At the foot of the stairs a domed room opens up in front of us and is warmly lit from the windows high in the dome.
We return to wending our way between the wire-framed enclosures and pass pathches of earth covered with little piles of brick fragments. The observant spot that most of the piles have 7 fragments and these offerings are left by those that make the pilgrimage to the dead. I am not normally spooked by cemeteries but the skeletal form of the bedstead enclosures, often with images of the interred hanging off the metal frame, leave me unsettled perhaps because they don’t have the permanency of stone grave markers. As we pass along the ridge the view opens up and a second hill comes into view. This hill is also densely dotted with stone and metal graves and above them rise the domes of some larger monuments.
We descend and head to the local town for lunch. The national dish of Uzbekistan is plov and I must admit I had reservations about ordering it after hearing some digestive horror stories from my mother. We are reassured by Oktyabr that the Karakalpakstan version of plov is lighter and less fatty and quite frankly far nicer. Most of the group decide that this is the plov to plump for so we order. It arrives and looks very innocent. A mound of rice cooked through with yellow pepper and a sprinkling of beef on the top. It is indeed very tasty and since this is written in retrospect I can happily report that there were no unpleasant after effects.
We head back to Nukus to the Igor Savitsky Museum which is, as I have read over and over again, ‘home to one of the finest collections of Soviet avant garden art. I don’t want to sound unappreciative but I don’t think I am a big fan of Soviet avant garde art if what I saw are considered the best examples. We amuse ourselves by trying to guess the title of the work by looking at the subject matter and soon realise that it is a case of say what you see – ‘Woman in Red Dress’, ‘Secretary Bird’, and ‘Picking Cabbages’… you get the idea.
Downstairs is an archaeology section but I have truly decided that for me, museum displays are best visited after I’ve seen the site. Looking at an array of stone, metal or ceramic objects from unfamiliar place names does little for me. Once I have seen the site and understood it in its landscape I am then ready to see the objects retrieved from it and importantly, remember them. This is probably a strange confession for an archaeologist. One object I saw in this section of the museum I will never forget though. Sitting in a cabinet with no light was the unmistakable form of a camel at rest; seated with its knees and legs in the awkward arrangement they adopt when you are about clamber onto their backs. This ceramic camel was pleasingly bulbous and its plump body was in fact a large pot, it’s hump would have formed the lid and its head arched backwards to create a handle. Reading the label it is revealed that this vessel is an ossuary. How wonderful. Being a very keen camelophile, the idea of having my bones left to rest in a camel-shaped vessel for eternity makes me smile.
We return to the hotel and I curl up on one of the large wooden sofas that is littered with cushions in the courtyard and catch up on writing the previous day’s blog.
After not enough sleep I wake and join the rest of my similarly jet-lagged group at breakfast in the hotel. We meet our guide in Tashkent, a bright young woman called Olga, who is eager to show us the old part of the city – namely the Hazrat Imam Complex. It’s hard to get ones bearings on the first outing so I simply enjoy seeing Tashkent in daylight. We drive past street after street of smart and sturdy Soviet buildings but the overriding impression of Tashkent is just how leafy green it is. The base of every tree trunk is painted white and as we approach the squares the trees look like an assembled group of school boys with their white socks pulled up. Olga tells us that the planting of trees in each of the city’s public open spaces was a direct response to their Independence a physical resistance against ever using their squares again for military or political parades. What a wonderful gesture and the city looks fabulous as a result.
The Hazrat Imam Complex looms into view and the familiar blue tiled mosque of which we saw so many in Iran stands proud. Although the present mosque was only built in 2007 the origins of some of the structures date to the 16th century. We wander into the main square behind the mosque and find that it is dotted with figures tugging on strings and above us their kites soar against the blue sky. The kites sound like small engines purring away as the wind vibrates against them. Old and young busy themselves with weaving their kites to avoid others and it is mesmerising watching them.
We are guided into the Muyi Mubarak Library, a small domed building in the square, and led to a central display case in which sits what is claimed to be the world’s oldest copy of the Qu’ran, dating to the 7th century. It is huge book about 2m long and the elk skin pages looked waxed. The Kufic script is pleasingly large and the characters dance across the pages. No photography was allowed but later I saw a copy in the History Museum so at least I was able to capture its beauty. The library has other examples of the Qu’ran on display including one ‘optimistically written in Hebrew’ as the guidebook politely described it.
Walking back outside into the harsh light we are greeted by the whirring of kites once again and we head towards the Barak Khan Madrassa which, though heavily restored after the earthquake in 1966, has a beautiful facade.
Inside we find each of the rooms around a central courtyard is now a tourist shop and so we linger over the silk scarves and ceramics. We are all taken by one particular scarf design that includes little white nodules woven into it representing the silk worm cocoon. It seems a fitting reminder of the little creatures that were the catalyst for the incredible network of Silk Roads which weave across Asia and beyond.
We are taken to another site on route to the museum and pull up next to what looks like a mudbrick citadel fortified by a high mudbrick wall with bastions called Ming O’rik.
We are proudly told that the construction dates to 2500 years ago. This information is then immediately retracted as the custodian of the site boasts that it earliest phase dates to 2500 BC. Our learned group explores the ruins by way of walkways and and with a lack of any written information panels we try and justify the claims being made. The construction looks like melted ice cream and as we investigate there is nothing that leads us to be convinced of the chronology being suggested
Housed in a formidable building, the History Museum is spread out over various floors and we learn that at one time one of those floors was dedicated to the life of Lenin. I am immediately reminded of the Red Castle Museum in Tripoli where one floor was devoted to the rise of Gaddafi and his achievements. It suddenly seems like an age ago that I was in Libya wandering the corridors of photos, gold plates and medals in Gaddafi’s honour and wonder what has become of the display of this slice of history now and whether it too has been irradiated. We plunge into the archaeological section and are all astounded at the complexity and diversity of the rich history of what is now Uzbekistan. One minute we are looking at funerary vessels that remind us of the Villanovan culture of the Iron Age in central Italy and the next we are staring into the carved faces in a relief that could have been plucked from Palmyra. We see Bactrian statuary and in an adjacent cabinet the fragments of a Buddha. It is mind boggling. Somehow in the next 10 days some of this rich story will be better understood as we visit places and I familiarise myself with the chronology but for now I look around in awe.
I am listening to The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan as we travel and he has a knack, which is nothing short of genius, for unpicking this story and fitting it in to the bigger picture. I feel a huge sense of privilege that I have travelled here to see this extraordinary blend of cultures and just hope I can do it justice in these scribblings.
The first day of travelling is always fraught with anxiety and the fact that mine started early in the morning heightened the anxiety level. I’m basically rubbish in the morning and so three alarms set on three different devices was all I could do to allay my fear of not waking up at 5am. It worked: phase one of my journey to Uzbekistan started to a shrill cacophony of alarm tones and me jumping out of bed and fumbling around trying to turn them all off.
I threw the guide books that I had been thumbing through the evening before into my bag and headed to the airport only to discover the flight was delayed. First by twenty minutes, then by thirty and then an hour. In my head an hour was the most I could be delayed without a real risk of missing my connecting flight in Istanbul on which I was due to meet my fellow travellers who had flown in from Italy. Fine, I kept telling myself, I’ll be fine. Now, anyone who has followed my travel odysseys in the past will know that I am a fool to think anything will be fine. The list of my trouble-free journeys is rather short but despite that I kept thinking I’ll be fine.
We take off an hour and half later than expected but the pilot assures us we can make up time in the air and all will be fine. And indeed all was fine except that by the time we approach Istanbul the plane makes a gentle curve and we start heading away from our destination. I flick on the world map on my to screen and become fixated with the little animation of the plane and the ‘time to destination’ clock that is ticking away at the top of the screen.
Sure enough our trajectory is not on course for Istanbul and rather than ticking down time, the clock seems to ticking up and the number of minutes begins to rise, not fall. As we head further out to sea I will the plane’s wing to dip down and turn back. My connection time is disappearing and my ‘I’m going to be fine, thoughts turn to ‘right, ok I’ll have to spend the next 24 hours waiting for the next flight on an inadequently padded chair in a waiting room as I don’t possess a visa to leave the airport in Turkey to spend the night in a hotel’. The animated plane is meanwhile still heading out to sea and the clock is still ticking upwards. I now have 25 mins before the gate closes. The clock says 17 mins until landing. I make a quick calculation that there is no way I can make it from row 24 to the front of the plane, into the airport, and to the next gate in the remaining 8 minutes. At that moment the wing dips and the plane icon on the screen makes an agonisingly slow turn on the map and we are once again heading towards Istanbul.
The clock starts ticking down at last but I am now factoring in the runway taxi time too and there is simply no way to make the flight. I feel a pang of nerves and my muscles tighten. The moment we land I send a text message to my group asking for the departure gate number and thankfully a response comes straight away with the news that the flight to Uzbekistan is delayed by an hour and a half. My entire body relaxes and delightedly I banish the thought of an overnight stay in Ataturk Airport. It soon becomes apparent that the connecting flight delay was instigated by the delay to my original flight. When I board the connecting flight I am greeted by the smiley faces of my friends and I, relieved, apologise for having kept them waiting. I find my seat, slump into it and happily remind myself that I am now bound for Tashkent.
We meet our driver outside Tashkent airport after having passed through customs and checks without a problem. The streets of the city are deserted at 3am and we hurtle along wide tree-lined boulevards with Soviet-style architecture on either side. As a former Soviet republic, it is not hard to see how Uzbekistan’s recent past has stamped an indelible mark on its urban fabric. I am hooked already.
Our evening glimpse of the main square in Esfahan had whet our appetites and today we were to discover its full glory. Crossing the Maydan-e Imam Square we are told that it had originally been a parade ground hosting events to entertain Shah Abbas I who watched from a terrace in the Ali Qapu Palace. It was also used as a polo field and the last vestige of this is one set of goal posts – a pair of gleaming white stone bollards.Today, horses still inhabit the square but rather than galloping after a polo ball they charge around the square pulling carriages laden with families. Dodging the flash of the red painted wheel spokes of the carriages, we were herded towards the Ali Qapu Palace on the west side of the square. The chunky brick base of the building gives way to a wonderfully spindly constructed terrace above and the whole wooden superstructure looks to be made from matchsticks in its delicacy. Built in the 16th century during the Safavid period, the building, intended as the ‘gateway to Ali’, was the entrance to the formal palace behind.
Passing through the gateway it is hard to know where to look first. A bewildering array of different textures, warm soft colours and intricate designs draw the eye in different directions and I am, as ever, trying to absorb everything and at the same time capture the intoxicating patterns through my lens.As we climb up through the building the simply decorated side rooms are just as striking as the ornately decorated ones and in fact provide a welcome break on the eyeballs.
We reach the terrace at the top and the view of the Maydan-e Imam square unfolds before us. The elevated view reveals just how immense it is and the wandering families appear as ant-like dots milling amongst the fountains and topiary bushes. The slender wooden columns towered above us and it is a wonder they can support the roof above.
The delicate wall paintings drew me away from the imposing view and back into the depths of the building. Portraits of Safavid peoples were framed by intricate scenes of the curls, frills and fronds of vegetation in a rather tame and domesticated view of the natural world. Inside the elegant decoration continued in soft hues of browns and blues and was punctuated by the inclusion of exotic birds with flamboyant feathers.
The domed rooms with their squinches are never endingly pleasing. We descend the spiral stairs and regroup in the square. Once again we avoid the rattle of the carriages and sift our way through the growing crowd as we cross the square to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque – a gem of Safavid architecture with its creamy coloured dome.
The bright blue tiled facade dazzles in contrast to the warm browns, beiges and burnt red colours of the Ali Qapu Palace and the intricate moulding above the entrance replicates a design we have seen time and time again. It is like a nest of mini squinches and has a honeycomb appearance that is repeated in some of the alcoves.
The dark and gloomy narrow passages lead into the main domed sanctuary and from their depths the vast hall comes as a shock to the senses. As I move into the room the blue and yellow tiles seem to dance and the movement is enhanced by the flow of the calligraphy that appears in bands around the room like a score of music.
The turquoise spiralling cable decoration rise like sticks of candy and lead the eye upwards to the crowning glory: the dome. The effect of the decoration in the room is dynamic yet graceful and the moment you stop moving the dance comes to a halt and the tranquility is overwhelming.
There are more squinches than you can shake a stick at and the light pierces through the tracery of the ring of windows below the dome. It’s a magnificent space and the low echo of people murmuring is soft and calming. Even the locals stare up with mouth slightly open – it is not just us who look on in wonderment and marvel at its majestic grandeur.
The dome is what transfixes the gaze. The pattern of ever-decreasing motifs gently guides the viewers now squinting eyes to the central design. The detail is too distant to be appreciated but that I assume was the intention – the representation of the celestial sphere out of reach to mortals.
Back out in the bright light we pass the fluttering bunting and head towards the Masjid-I Imam mosque that dominates the southern end of the main square.
Like the matchstick columns of the Ali Qapu Palace, these ridiculously tapered wooden columns soar above us and prop up the most beautiful painted roof. Behind the terrace gives way to to a mirrored portico and the dazzling reflections off the Venetian glass bring light to the inner depths of the building.Inside there are a series of frescoes of portraits which fill these otherwise empty halls with life and populate them with the graceful and elegant poses of Safavids.
In the next chamber the tempo of the frescoes changes and on one wall the crowded battle scene with elephants charging horses, horses charging people and people charging people and the flash of the sabres overwhelms the onlooker. But the scene is somewhat sanitised and the although the energy of the Battle of Karnal is present only a few heads have rolled. On the opposite wall is a depiction of the Battle of Chaldiran. Never has war looked so pristine and brightly coloured.
It has been a morning of visual explosions and tranquil experiences and lunch comes as a welcome break though in truth I’m not convinced I have truly absorbed everything I have seen. We drop down into the depths of a basement restaurant where an elaborate preparation of a meat soup is performed with dedication at the table.We are left to our own devices after lunch and a group of us immerse ourselves into the frenetic activity in the bazaar. Rugs are pulled out, put back, new ones pulled out and old ones returned to. The shop keepers energy is unfailing though they begin to show the small cracks of wanting to close the deal. The shoppers meanwhile are happy to discuss, admire the purchases of others, pull out more rugs to look at and inevitably chose the ones they had originally been drawn to. I sit and watch and occasionally get covered in a slumped pile of unwanted rugs as the process continues. There is much to and fro-ing over the price and while the customers haggle the shopkeepers act out the drama by the wearing pained expressions as if they are being robbed. In the end a price is agreed and everyone feels the theatre of the sale has been rewarded. But the shop keepers are experts and are well versed in giving the customer the sense of satisfaction at no loss to themselves. It’s a performance well worth being in the audience for. I meet one of the group a little later to capture the evening light in the main squarethrough my lens. I admit that my companion makes more of an effort than I do – borrowing a plastic stool from a shop in the bazaar, he heads to the centre of the square and stands on it in order to get an elevated view much to the bewilderment of the locals. I remain content to use the height afforded to me by my own legs and happily catch the evening light as it hits the dome of the mosque. When he later mounts the metal frame of a dustbin I relent and pass him up my camera and gladly reap the benefit of his shot without the need to cause ripples of laughter from the onlookers.
As the sun sets, we find a tea house, order the local delicacy and sit in a small, dimly lit courtyard awaiting our beverage. It arrives. Now, I’m not an habitual drinker of tea but the contents of my cup look anything but like a cup of tea and resemble a spring meadow with what looked like a cherry tomato bobbing in the centre. A sugar stick is provided but even after dunking it I can safely say it tasted like chomping on flowers rather than tea leaves. Maybe I should stick to coffee…